This year is turning out to be a significant one with regard to the corporate responsibility profile of the global clothing industry, as Ben Cooper outlines in his overview of just-style's August management briefing.

The creation of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition in March is undoubtedly a ground-breaking development, bringing together some of the biggest names in the industry with other stakeholders in a collective bid both to measure and address environmental and social impacts.

Meanwhile, a new voluntary code of practice relating to the design and marketing of children's clothing took the UK retail industry's collective response to mounting public and political concern over the sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood to a new level, possibly setting a precedent that could be followed in other countries.

Setting up a Sustainability Index
The publication of a report by Greenpeace in July, entitled 'Dirty Laundry - Unravelling the corporate connections to toxic water pollution in China,' is indicative of just one of the environmental hotspots that the clothing sector faces.

Water pollution is perceived to be a pressing issue not only in China but in many other countries, while concerns over hazardous chemical usage do not relate simply to their disposal into water sources. Their use in manufacture and their handling by workers has long been an issue environmentalists have raised with the clothing sector.

Other environmental hotspots for the industry include water usage and waste/recycling, along with core sustainability criteria such as energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), launched in March, aims to address all the areas of environmental concern, both through the pooling of information and resources and, arguably most critically, the establishment of a Sustainability Index.

The formation of SAC and the development of the Index are covered in subsequent sections of this briefing, but one of its key strengths is multi-stakeholder membership. When just-style published its last management briefing on environmental issues in 2009, a number of stakeholders suggested the setting-up of an environmental platform, incorporating multi-stakeholder membership, would be extremely positive for the global clothing sector. The formation of SAC in March suggests that sentiment was widely shared in the industry.

In its launch document SAC stated: "Each of the Coalition's participating companies and organisations see an opportunity to advance their own sustainability goals by collaborating to create more uniform, broadly defined tools for measuring sustainability, and for collective actions to drive innovations in products and manufacturing that will benefit the entire apparel industry and consumers."

While the environmental aims of SAC have probably received the greater attention, the Coalition also addresses social and labour issues. It has stated its intention to develop these social/labour elements over time.

The work of multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the Fair Labor Association (FLA) in the US and the UK-based Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) has clearly led to improvements in working conditions in clothing supply chains in developing countries. However, the release of two reports this year, one published by War on Want and another by ActionAid, underlines the scale of the problem.

Both the social and environmental challenges are undoubtedly exacerbated by the complex and convoluted supply chains which characterise the clothing sector, so the focus SAC is placing initially on supply chain performance, as seen in the provisional design of its Sustainability Index outlined in the third section of this briefing, is clearly a positive and pragmatic step.

The emphasis SAC is placing on measurement has also been roundly welcomed, though Greenpeace suggested the Coalition also needed to establish clear and measurable targets.

Commercialisation of children
While the formation of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition addressed long-running environmental and social issues affecting the global apparel industry, clothing retailers in the UK have moved this year to address another area of increasing concern, namely the commercialisation and sexualisation of children.

In response to a government-commissioned independent review of the issue, the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents major retailers in the UK, introduced a set of guidelines in June relating to the design, commissioning and marketing of clothing ranges for children under 12 years old. So far, 11 retailers have committed to the guidelines and the BRC is expecting more to sign up in due course.

Although the introduction of guidelines was a specific recommendation in the review, which was conducted by Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers Union, the BRC had engaged with Bailey's team while the review was being carried out, allowing the retailers to launch their guidelines as his final report was published.

The Bailey report also recommended that the Government monitor implementation and formally review progress on all its recommendations, to government departments, regulators and industry, in 18 months' time. If insufficient progress has been made, the report stated, the Government would be "fully entitled to bring forward appropriate statutory measures to ensure action is taken".

While the industry standards were generally welcomed by campaigners, some criticised the lack of a monitoring or complaints procedure and suggested this will make it difficult to measure progress accurately.

This briefing examines these initiatives in the context of the debates which have prompted their creation.